What Is Really Unprecedented About Trump?

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tags: Trump



Julian E. Zelizer  is a historian at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst. He is the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.

“Unprecedented” has become one of the most popular terms to use when discussing President Trump. On any given day since January 20 2017, the odds are good that a person can turn on their televisions or browse through a news story to encounter some pundit discussing how President Trump’s actions are unlike anything we have ever seen before.

As a “public intellectual” who takes to the airwaves frequently, I often find myself fielding this question about all sorts of issues. The gatekeepers of the chyron perpetually have their ears open to hear a guest utter those words. Because of how unpredictable and bizarre so much of the news seems to be in the era of Trump, the desire to blurt out “unprecedented!” when discussing the state of American politics is always strong.

For a historian such as myself, using the term is always trickier than it seems. The knee-jerk response to the “unprecedented” question is to instantly reach back into our database and recall a person, a moment, or a crisis that reveals unexpected similarities to what is happening today. If we misuse the term unprecedented, we risk missing what is really new while ignoring the deep political roots to what is currently taking place in Washington. We fall prey to Trump Exceptionalism by forgetting how much of the ugliness and dysfunction did not appear out nowhere. If we look into the window of history, we can see that much of Trump’s presidency has a pretty solid foundation.

If we use “unprecedented” with care, then we are able to see what is genuinely distinct about the moment within which we live. Never have we had a president, for instance, who directly communicates with the public in the same kind of unscripted, ad-hoc, and off-the-cuff manner as we have witnessed with Trump. The kind of unbridled rhetorical attacks that he has unleashed on every enemy from the news industry to Puerto Rican officials to kneeling NFL football players to Republican legislators has been a striking contrast to what we have witnessed in American presidential history. In contrast to FDR, who spoke directly to the public through fireside chats on the radio that were carefully crafted, thoughtfully edited, and broadcast strategically, President Trump has used Twitter to literally say what is on his mind at any moment without much consideration for the consequences. This is a new style of presidential communication and a dramatic lowering of the editorial barrier as to what the commander in chief is willing to utter before the world.

Another truly unprecedented part of the Trump presidency that doesn’t get much attention anymore has to do with the massive conflict of interest that exists in this Oval Office. When the president made a decision in January to avoid erecting a strict firewall between his family business and the presidency, he set the democracy on a dangerous path that we have not yet experienced. Never have we had a businessperson with such vast economic holdings as president. To have our leader be the titular head of a sprawling global company with property interests all over the globe, even with his two sons “running the business,” creates obvious problematic situations where the line between making money and making policy is permanently blurred. ...




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